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Op Eds

Young Americans Can Boot Climate Deniers Out of Congress this Year

By Oliver S. York
Oliver S. York ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House.

As the election draws closer, I’ve got one number on my mind: 114 climate deniers sitting in the United States House of Representatives.

Young people alone have the power to oust 96 of them.

Young Americans overwhelmingly care about the environment. We’re going to pay the price if today’s leaders refuse to act aggressively against catastrophic climate change. Flipping those seats should be a top priority for young organizers, because although the presidential race gets most of our collective attention, it’s actually up to Congress to enact the policies on climate change adaptation and mitigation that could save our planet. Young voters can play a crucial role in voting climate deniers out of office — but only if we vote, and vote all the way down the ballot.

Unfortunately, voter turnout among younger Americans drags miserably behind every other age group. After five years of living in extreme drought conditions in California, it was clear to me and my friends that climate action was on the ballot in 2016. I was crushed to watch half of eligible 18-29-year-olds stay home that November, America’s second warmest November month on record.

In the 2018 midterms, a follow-up climate referendum, young voter turnout surged 16 percentage points from the previous midterm election, when it stood at an embarrassing 20 percent; that energy was rewarded by aggressive legislation in Congress, including the Green New Deal.

Now, climate change is back on the ballot in 2020 — just ask anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area, where an epic rash of wildfires is taking its toll, triggering more loss of life and livelihood, and producing another respiratory epidemic as we struggle to contain COVID-19.

At the presidential level, climate voters have a clear champion: Joe Biden has the most progressive climate agenda of any major party nominee in American history. But is that platform, buried under the pageantry of the Democratic National Committee, enough to get climate-conscious young people to the polls? For all but the most politically engaged, I’m not so sure.

If we want down-ballot turnout in support of Congressional candidates who accept climate science, we need to stop relying on Biden’s coattails and start telling a better story of how your vote can make a difference. Here’s the message that young people need to hear to know that their vote will move the needle on climate action: Come November, 18-29-year-olds will constitute a large enough voting bloc to kick these climate deniers out of office.

In 96 of the Congressional districts represented by a climate denier, the incumbent’s 2018 margin of victory falls short of the number of 18-29-year-olds in the district, according to combined statistics from the Cook Political Report and the U.S. Census Bureau. In these target districts, a wave of youth turnout could prove decisive and send a sitting climate denier packing.

And we don’t need 100 percent turnout before young voters start making a difference — each marginal vote counts. If an additional two percent of 18-29-year-olds get fired up in each district and march to the polls, three climate-denying incumbents could lose their seat. If an additional 20 percent cast ballots, up to 23 climate deniers are underwater.

And that’s an attainable goal: According to the Institute of Politics’ Harvard Youth poll released last month, 63 percent of young people reported that they would “definitely” vote in November, up more than 20 points from this time in 2018.

As young voter turnout goes up, so too will the number of seats in play. A 50 percentage-point increase in turnout in each district could jeopardize the seats of a whopping 57 climate deniers — and all of this even before the additional voting power of adults 30-and-up tip the scale.

It may seem a fool’s errand to bring climate messaging to the center of mainstream get-out-the-vote efforts in this strange, strange year (although organizations like Environmental Voter Project and NextGen America are doing tremendous work to activate single-issue climate voters). But nothing happens in a vacuum. Climate policy and COVID-19 policy are inextricably linked: The unwillingness to accept scientific consensus on climate change is akin to the rejection of public health guidance on containing the pandemic.

Likewise, young voters are acutely aware that climate justice is racial justice: Those of our generation who turned out in droves, to the street or in spirit, to protest systemic racism know that the burdens of climate change are disproportionately borne by communities of color.

The stakes are high, and not voting is a vote against climate justice. Unless we make a concerted effort to mobilize young climate voters around Congressional elections, Joe Biden won’t have the support to enact the climate agenda we need.

Oliver S. York ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House.

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